John Lichfield is one of the longest-serving British newspaper correspondents in France, covering French news and politics for The Independent since 1997. He soon discovered that his most popular articles were not serious news stories, but first-person columns offering a snapshot of the everyday pleasures and problems of living and bringing up a family in France. Paul McNally spoke to him in Paris.
You worked for AFP news agency in the late 1970s and have also been a journalist in Brussels, Washington and London. What brought you back to Paris?
I was foreign editor at The Independent when Andrew Marr became editor [in 1996]. He was a friend; we had worked together at The Scotsman. I'd never really written about France and I had always wanted to. The paper wanted me to go back to Washington, but my wife Margaret thought France was a better place to bring up children. The Independent was in a difficult period. We thought it would only survive for another year or so, but here we still are.
How did your children cope with the move to France?
Charles was six and he knew it was a big adventure. He had very little French and felt slightly nervous about it, but I think he was also quite excited. Clare, who was three, had no real sense of what was happening until she got to school and people didn't speak her language. She said she would never learn French because she didn't have French teeth, but she picked it up very quickly and she is now completely bilingual. We quickly gained a third child, Grace, who was born in France. Having children in the French school system and a house in Normandy has taught me more about France than 14 years of daily reading of the French press.
What attracted you to buy a second home in rural Normandy?
We decided that the children needed somewhere green to get out to. The Suisse Normande [south of Caen] is very pretty. Normandy is very English-looking - or maybe Britain is Norman-looking - it's a bit like how the English countryside might have been in the 1930s before the suburban sprawl. Even the faces of the people are very English. I put a 14 number plate on my car and it has helped a lot in Calvados: if they think you're local, you don't get anywhere near the number of people being abusive to you on the road.
You say in your book that it took you five years to make French friends
It did take a long time for us to feel that we had real French friends, and they all came through school connections. Making friends in France is a big operation: for the British, a friend is someone you know. In America, it's someone you've just met. In France, it's like a family or tribe.
You lay claim to the term "Froglit" for all the books written by Britons about France. Why is there no reciprocal "Britlit": the French writing about the British?
I think it's because France is surrounded by seven different countries and the French are quite interested in all of them. You get a lot more coverage in the French press of Germany and Belgium, for example. French papers cover Britain very well, but there isn't the same obsessive "what are the British up to?" drumbeat of interest that you get about France in all the British papers.
Do you find yourself chasing the same stories as the other English-language reporters in Paris?
Most of the quality UK newspapers have a full-time correspondent and I get on pretty well with all of them. There's not a "press pack" in Paris as there was in Brussels. We see each other maybe once a month. There is a core narrative about what's going on in France, which we all do, but after that it's very much what the paper needs at any given moment. There isn't an obvious story for all of us to be following at the same time.
Your biggest story came within months of starting the job: the death of Diana in August 1997. What did it teach you about being a journalist in France?
It was infuriating. It was very difficult to get very basic information out of the French authorities. I wrote to the investigating magistrate and said to him: you really need to get information out to the press, because if you don't there's going to be a million conspiracy theories. A lot of stuff was made up and a lot of that information still sticks in people's imaginations to this day.
Do you feel quite low down the pecking order here, working as a foreign correspondent?
Absolutely. It is difficult to make contacts as a foreign correspondent, dealing with politicians and officialdom in Paris. President Sarkozy has no interest in the foreign press at all: he doesn't care, although that may be changing a little bit. Chirac was more helpful: he had a more international outlook and the Elysée used to be quite helpful to foreign correspondents in his day. The Elysée is extraordinary unhelpful and obstructive to foreign correspondents now. However, in other areas of France, as soon as you ring up anyone as a foreign correspondent, they're quite flattered that you're interested. Anyone in the wine or cheese industry, or any area that has an international aspect to it, is only too helpful to a foreign journalist.
Do you get out of Paris much?
I'm up to 88 departments within metropolitan France. I'm short of eight departments and they all seem to be clustered on the east side. It must be quiet there, around the Franche-Comté; I don't know why that is. When I was in America, I travelled a lot and managed all 50 states in four years, but towards the end I was looking for stories in the states I hadn't been to. I haven't started doing that here, but I will.
What do you make of French journalism and journalists?
When I came here, journalists tended to become part of the world they were covering. Political journalists, especially, were not necessarily that independent-minded or aggressive towards power. That is changing and I think it has been driven by the internet. In terms of style, at its best, French journalism is more subtle and more effective than English journalism. The French style can lead to brilliant essay journalism - it allows for a more discursive, more literary approach to a subject - but it can also be an excuse for writing 2,000 words and not saying anything.
Are you looking forward to covering the 2012 presidential elections?
It will be a very interesting election. I don't think it's impossible that Sarkozy will win it. I don't think Martine Aubry has enough presidential-style charisma to be taken seriously as the first woman president of France. I think people are fed up with Ségolène Royal. I have a slight hunch that the Socialist candidate who may rise is François Hollande. He's a very tough opponent: perhaps a rather dull, serious candidate like him could be what a lot of people would go for. The Elysée know he's the most dangerous candidate.
Is it true that you have your own character on the French version of Spitting Image, Guignols de l'Info?
There was this character called John, who was a British newspaper correspondent and looked remarkably like me. He appeared several times during the election in 2007 to point out the iniquities of French journalists. My articles are often translated into Courrier International with a byline photo, so perhaps that's how they found me. I claim him as me and they've never denied it, although I never rang Canal+ to check.
Our Man in Paris, a selection of John Lichfield's columns since 1997, is published by Signal Books, ISBN: 978-1-904955-73-3